Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania Governor turned first United States Secretary of Homeland Security, is brought back into public consciousness at Vox Populi with Gary Sczerbaniewicz’s interactive installation, which bears his name. Although the Knight Arts grantee has a plethora of other great pieces on view this May, it is the sheer scale and detail of “Tom Ridge” (the artwork) that deserves a closer look.
In the room where the apparatus stands, it first appears like some sort of home improvement project gone terribly wrong; an HVAC apocalypse from which there is no return. Boxes, shafts, ducts and grates spring up and around the gallery with little apparent cause or effect. The space is dominated by a long wooden tunnel in the center of the room with a metal, meshed opening gaping at one end. At the mouth of the structure, there rests a padded, wheeled bed on tracks. Nearby instructions encourage visitors to lie down, and drag themselves inside... but before we do, let’s examine the other external components.
Vinyl letters on the nearby wall include not only directions, but also quotations from Sigmund Freud and author Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. We enter and leave the chamber in a carnal manner, invoking Freud, whose words about the ‘hidden’ and the ‘uncanny’ stir curiosity as much as they call to mind sexuality, birth and our eventual entombment. This litany of life’s most impenetrable mysteries belies hesitation in favor of inquiry. Danielewski’s musings about the nature of sanity and fear further stoke the fires of our imagination, and it becomes all but impossible to avoid entering the abyss.
Square satellite shafts jut out on either side of the main segment, offering glimpses into weird little worlds. Each porthole is covered by a black metal grate, and inside we find tiny interiors and fiery glowing embers. Neither look adequately satiates the hype provoked by the rest of the arrangement, so one must resolve to lie down and enter the rift.
Entering the darkened tube is reminiscent of both the dingy and dangerous descent into a mine or the clandestine journey of a spy into a ventilation duct, and we find ourselves rightly exhilarated. At the end, one can peer directly up into a tiny inverted room. Like the twisted structure in “House of Leaves” or the cavernous realm of the human subconscious, we are ushered into a psychological nightmare with as much paranoia as a post-9/11 terrorist witch hunt.
The little room is delicately crafted like a child’s favorite dollhouse, except for the collapsed floorboards at the end of the upside-down staircase that lead into a hellish pit of red light. Everything else, however, appears as it should. It is also worth noting that the smokestack-like construction outside is conspicuous and massive compared to the display inside, and that the crude exterior is so harshly contrasted with its painstakingly built innards.
No matter how one approaches Sczerbaniewicz’s complicated, yet highly precise vision, it is evident that it is steeped in layer upon layer of meaning, and reflection upon reflection of both culture and individual. While the teetering tower of politics, eroticism, terror, architecture and literature seems unwieldy (and it is), the experience of confronting and spelunking through this installation is worth a visit in and of itself. “Tom Ridge” will be at Vox Populi through May 31.